Being German in America Series: Part 1

Do you know how your immigrant ancestor’s felt about their citizenship? I am trying to answer that question for my own family.

I have been fascinated with my immigrant ancestors for much of my life. Like many people I wonder about their motivations for leaving their homeland and taking that chance for a more prosperous and fulfilling life in a new land. Their journeys sometimes were challenging and even life-threatening, but most made it here in the second half of the nineteenth century. This is the first in a series of articles I am writing about my German kin.

I have recently discovered some evidence that one of my German ancestors may have come to the United States far earlier than previously documented. I still have to transcribe the document and analyze the information but it has the potential to change the reason my family came here. But that tidbit is all I can share for now! Stay tuned.

All of my mother’s great-grandparents came from Germany. The Rasa family, my grandmother Roma’s paternal line, immigrated when their oldest son Friedrich August was 8 years old. The Rasas came from Hanover and Hessen, while the Raiffeisens, Siegels and Rodenbachs came from the Rhineland, which at the time they emigrated was part of the Prussian Empire.

Friedrich Rasa’s wife’s family may have had a difficult journey. Roma told us that her grandmother, Minna Hussmann Brandt (1833-1868), died on the trail in a covered wagon as the family made their way to their new home in Morgan County, Missouri. I can’t imagine how heartbreaking it would be to endure weeks-long ocean voyage to New Orleans, then on a riverboat up the Mississippi to the Missouri River, then overland with wagons, only to die as the wagons neared their destination. I haven’t done enough research on the Brandt and Rasa family to know if I can document that story. Often when someone died in transit, “proof” is difficult as the family would not yet have had links to a town or church where we might usually seek those records. Nonetheless, researching the early church records at the Pyrmont Church near Florence, Missouri, is on my To-Do List.

Left side top and bottom: Carl & Charlotte (Schupp) Raiffeisen; top row center & right: Friedrich & Minna (Brandt) Rasa; lower row center & right: John Peter and Lena (Rodenbach) Siegel

What I do know about my ancestors is that each of them and generations that followed identified themselves as ethnic Germans. At what point that changed is a question I have continually researched. Was my grandfather’s generation forced to give up their German language, culture, and linkages, or did it ebb away as people aged and they integrated into a small community that was home to hundreds of ethnic Germans. It seems, according to all evidence I have discovered to date, they lived harmoniously with the numerous other nationalities.

I’ve begun looking at my grandfather Carl Christian Siegel’s life. When he was born in 1887 in Morgan County, Missouri, there were two major and at least twenty local German language newspapers in Missouri. We found several German language books and periodicals that belonged to Carl’s mother’s generation at my grandparents farmhouse.

By the time Carl was born, Germans were integrated into American society, local governments, the Missouri State Legislature, and U.S. Congress. Students who attended German schools as Carl did, often spoke German in school and at home but English with their friends and siblings. They were the first generation of truly bilingual Americans. Carl’s earliest bible given to him for his confirmation by his pastor was in German, as was his baptismal certificate. This and other evidence shows that Carl began his religious and scholarly education in German, but it ended in English.

The earliest German Evangelical Church was established in Missouri in 1834. Church records, including those of my ancestors were recorded in German. I have found no distinct cut off for the German language, instead it seems to have diminished over a period of a few years. This was likely due to the younger generations speaking English outside of their homes, becoming increasingly capable in both languages. But I need to conduct more research to determine when it changed in church records.

I’ve been reading an excellent book on the era by David Detjen called The Germans in Missouri, 1900-1918: Prohibition, Neutrality and Assimilation. Detjen explains that there was no Missouri law prohibiting German language instruction even during World War I. Why? Because the state legislature met biennially, and they just missed the boat, adjourning before the U.S. declared war on Germany on April 4, 1917, and not returning to session until after the war had ended. That didn’t mean Missourians lacked regulation. The federal government passed two laws, the Espionage Act (June 1917) and the Sedition Act (May 1918) that placed direct pressure to “assure loyalty and patriotism of its citizens.  To assure victory everything German was consolidated into one category- enemy.”[1]  While German language publishers were not outlawed, mailing correspondence in German – whether mail, magazine, newspaper or personal letter – was prohibited. This effectively cut off Americans of German heritage from their relatives in the homeland and most German-language publishers in the U.S. did not survive the war era.

I need to conduct more research in Morgan, Pettis, and Benton counties to determine what life was like for Carl and nearly every other ancestor alive at the time from my maternal line. Did his neighbors begin to view him and his family differently? Was there tension between neighbors and friends? Looking at census records it is clear many families remained in close proximity for generations. Did the war and the anti-German propaganda change Carl’s life?  There are two things I can confirm, that he was very patriotic and was very proud of his three sons who served during WWII, but I have yet to find any proof of what his life was like during the first world war. When war broke out Carl was a newlywed, when the U.S. entered the conflict he had two children and expected a third before the end in November 1918. The only evidence of change I have so far is that my mother nor any of her siblings remember any family speaking in German or using German words or idioms, which is a little heart breaking for me. I struggled to learn it later in life and I was very envious of others who grew up in a bilingual home.

My research and interest in the daily lives of my German immigrant ancestors is ongoing. As I discover more detail I will share it here.


[1] Detjen, David W. Germans in Missouri, 1900-1918: Prohibition, Neutrality and Assimilation. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1985.

 

 

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